Research intelligence - More concentration needed

David Colquhoun tells Paul Jump that the only way to maximise UK potential is to restrict research to an elite circle

January 20, 2011

The research councils' delivery plans have confirmed that more research funding will be concentrated on top-performing universities, with resources for doctoral study confined to centres selected on the basis of size and excellence. The research elite are also likely to benefit from the further focusing on excellence in the quality-related research funding doled out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

But David Colquhoun thinks that that is not enough concentration for UK research to fulfil its potential. The former A.J. Clark professor of pharmacology at University College London said that goal would be achieved only by confining all research activity to pre-1992 universities.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, he argued that when more than 40 per cent of the population enters higher education, the traditional honours degree - which aims to prepare school-leavers for independent research within three years - is too specialist, while the advanced teaching required is beyond the abilities of some academics.

"It is a bit of an ugly generalisation, but in my own field I have no doubt that is true," Professor Colquhoun said. "There are simply not enough good researchers to teach half the population (to honours level) and, as a general statement, it is indisputable that many people in research-intensive universities will do advanced teaching better."

In the current system, he said, the majority of students are educated to an unnecessarily specialised level while the minority who are interested in research are often insufficiently prepared for doctoral study.

"In pharmacology, lots of people start doctorates without even being able to do a dilution or to understand basic algebra," Professor Colquhoun observed.

Even more crucially, undergraduate teaching keeps top researchers from the high-level graduate teaching that would redress such failings.

Research off limits to some

The solution, he thinks, is to convert a proportion of universities - the post-1992s being the obvious candidates - into teaching-only institutions that would serve the vast majority of students, who would pursue US-style general degrees.

These would cover a wider range of subjects at a lower level than traditional UK honours degrees but still develop critical thinking. Professor Colquhoun said they would not need to be taught by active researchers, who would be concentrated in research-intensive universities.

The minority of students with the ability and drive to conduct research would join these elite institutions for a further year. They would be taught at a higher level than the present third year of honours degrees in US-style graduate schools - as opposed to their UK namesakes, which "mainly teach advanced PowerPoint", according to Professor Colquhoun.

Even if research-intensives continued a limited amount of undergraduate teaching, researchers would also regain significant time to direct their own research groups.

"It might even lead to fewer retractions," he added.

While acknowledging that such a change would require a rethink of the tuition fees system, he argued that his proposals would result in lower fees because fewer undergraduate teachers would be needed and general degrees could be completed in two years if academics did not require long breaks to carry out research.

He argued that lower fees and the closure of elite universities to all except those older students with demonstrated research interests and capabilities would also promote "social levelling".

Although such a reorganisation could reduce the volume of UK research, Professor Colquhoun was unworried. He said it would be no loss if "non-cited, trivial work" was not published.

But what of academics in the islands of research excellence found in post-1992 universities? "There could be some movement between universities," he conceded. "Maybe some UCL staff would rather not do research and would prefer to move to the University of Westminster."

But he did not believe that UCL would be besieged by post-1992 staff desperate for a research post.

"When I first aired this idea, I expected a real backlash, but the first letter I got was from an academic at a post-92 saying he had never been much of a researcher and would be happy to just get on with teaching."

He accepted that there would be a "heated argument" about which universities became teaching-only, and that vice-chancellors of universities in the Million+ group would fiercely resist any check on their research ambitions.

"But you can't do anything without people shouting."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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